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The Artist Who Told on the Art World: Pablo Helguera

by Georgia Kotretsos
Pablo Helguera is a New York-based artist working with installation, sculpture, photography, drawing and performance. His work considers the relationship, between history, cultural production and language. Helguera fictionalizes the real, generating commentary and discussion about our surrounding cultural reality and relationship to time. His work often adopts the form of lectures, museum display strategies, musical performances and written fiction. On this note, Helguera is also the author of The Pablo Helguera’s Manual of Contemporary Art Style, a pretty puzzling reading for those who do not read between the lines. I am personally a devoted fan, simply because constructive dialogues and preposterous art arguments can depart from this book. Picking it up, reading it, writing on the margins, drawing on the diagrams and graphs, laughing out loud, disagreeing with it was easy, but letting go before talking to the artist himself was not. It has a unique bird-watching quality to it from an artist who’s looked closely at the art world. It’s an “essential guide for artists, curators and critics,” as it says on the cover, or a one-of-a-kind conversation art piece, and plausibly a great tool to sociologists, anthropologists and psychologists. This online interview was completed in March 2008. Georgia Kotretsos: Is this book based on your own speculations of the Art World (AW) or is it an example of artistic research? And if it is the latter, what was your method, your time frame, the form in which all this information was collected and then analyzed? Pablo Helguera: I never speculate – speculating is a risky business, especially if you are writing a “how to” book. Nor did I do any scientific research to write my book. Rather, after having been involved in the art world for two decades, I realized I had accumulated a number of insights and information that could be useful to share, particularly for young artists. I felt that the art world was governed by unspoken social rules that no one seems to explicitly talk about, and I thought it would be useful to spell it out. I suspected that once I did so the result would automatically show the contradictions and absurdities of social life in the art world. The information flowed freely, quickly, and orderly, once I set to work. I tried to maintain the didactic tone of traditional social manuals – and that was perhaps the hardest part. Judging from the overwhelming response for the book, I think it must have touched a nerve of some kind. GK: Speaking of unspoken social rules, there is a topic a traditional art guide wouldn’t touch on: “sexuality.” You discuss it, you offer your fair opinion when it matters, you have fun with it; however, your approach still rates PG. So, let’s take this a step further by thinking outside the book for a moment, how big of a role do sexual relationships and sexual orientation play in career-building in the AW? PH: The book does describe pretty clearly what happens with the lover of a successful artist, curatorial assistants who sleep with famous artists, and other explicit situations. But ok, let’s speak about sex. Some contemporary art etiquette theorists argue that artists who excel at oral sex have greater chances at getting into the Whitney Biennial. Similarly, if you happen to be bisexual, you have the added advantage of seducing both female and male curators. Artists of exotic origin have an advantage at seducing “global conceptualist” type curators. However, none of this is true. Wouldn’t it be wonderful, though? While sexual seduction does work to expedite certain professional relationships, straight quid pro quo sex-career favors have more limitations than one would imagine. For one thing, if the artist or curator in question is decidedly mediocre, no sexual prestidigitation will get them very far. Unless you make that part of your work, such as when Andrea Fraser offers herself as a sexual prize to an eager collector. But that is more of a metaphor of the actual prostitution that we all engage in, in the art world, isn’t it?
Pablo Helguera’s Manual of Contemporary Art Style

conversation piece. You go in great length covering a broad spectrum of AW interactions and social scenarios ranging from bodily propriety, decorum, code of artistic civility, to form of dress, address and demeanor. Aren’t you curious why all these rules serve as the cannon? What’s behind the AW etiquette? PH: That is indeed a fascinating question – one that would be best answered by someone who would be simultaneously versed in anthropological, sociological, economical and art theory – but so far I haven’t found many people like that. Social behavior in the art world results as a combination of factors, such as career motivations, financial interests, psychological obsessions, and the always intangible interest in art. But because the global phenomenon of things like art fairs, the 24/7 cycle of biennials, and the “festivalist” artist is so new, we have very little critical tools to analyze and understand how all these factors intermix to make the art world behave the way it does. This is partially why the book somewhat launched another project of mine, the Helguera Center for Artworld Studies, which puts forth the notion that the art world has become a sufficiently large communal entity to demand its own field of academic studies (not to be confused with art history, art education or studio art). I am currently looking for scholars with interests in this new field that may want to submit papers to a conference that this Center will organize sometime in the Fall in New York. The conference, as you may gather, is a bit in the same spirit as the manual – trying not to take ourselves too seriously while at the same time being completely serious – just like art tends to be. GK: Let’s take a close look at art schools then. You define art schools as “…institutions that teach nineteenth century art techniques, twentieth century art history, and ask students to pay tuitions at the rate of the upcoming century, with the assumption that art students will be able to navigate the present on their own.” Nice! Why isn’t the content of the Manual taught at art schools? Isn’t this the age of the Pop Idol, where one has to sing good, look good, dance good? Why isn’t the educational system frank with aspiring artists? PH: Actually, I am now afraid of the opposite: that the manual will be taken as “the” word on how to make it in the art world. I happened to read blog entries written by two random art students who had gotten their hands on the manual, saying to each other that the manual had told them everything they needed to know about the art profession. The underlying irony of the text had been completely lost to them. And the truth of the matter is that while the manual truthfully exposes quite a variety of situations in the art world, in its instructional format also tries to exemplify, as some reviewer rightfully observed, how to attain the worst kind of success – the one that is solely driven by blind ambition, careerism, insincerity and affectation, of which the art world is saturated. This is partially a byproduct of the ineptitude of the art school system, which provides you tools that are mostly irrelevant when you have to deal with the reality you encounter out there when you graduate. The moment an artist leaves art school is, I think, the most difficult of one’s career – it certainly was like that for me. You face very difficult questions about your personal relationship with art, and usually you have no choice but to take the cues from the world around you. And it is clear that for most young artists the meaning of art simply is inextricably linked to the need of joining an elite. Schools seem to place little emphasis on what should be the most important part of everything, which is to learn how to appreciate art and look at an art career not as an art race, but as a language that must fulfill one’s intellect and creativity before it fulfills one’s ego. In other words, my greatest wish would be that everyone would do exactly the opposite of what the manual suggests they do, because otherwise you fall again into continuing the same ridiculous behavior that the art world encourages and rewards. My brother, who was a writer, once wrote: “If I ever wrote a book about how to succeed in life, and if the book turned out to be successful, I would feel a total failure.” And that is exactly how I feel. BP

Courtesy Jorge Pinto Books Inc.

GK: Fair enough! Nonetheless, you manage to tap into the career anxiety and neurosis of the contemporary A, B, C or D level artist in an amusing manner. It has an older brotherly kind of tone to it – enlightening young artists on what’s ahead of them on an emotional and professional level if they choose to commit to a career in the AW. Was the manual actually written for that kind of audience, or is it an inside joke for people already invested in the scene? PH: It was actually written for both. As someone who has been doing art education for two decades, one of the principles that guides me is that nothing is more revelatory for a self-proclaimed connoisseur than a discussion about the very basic ideas about his or her profession, because those simple questions tend to address the most difficult issues (this is why explaining the world to a child tends to be very hard). So an introductory book for the art world novice can be equally educational to the expert, in the sense that it can reveal new insights on how we regard the basic rules of it – which is what the manual tries to do. I always wished that someone had written this book when I was in my student years – it would have saved me a lot of aggravation and embarrassment. The actual tone of the book is borrowed from traditional etiquette manuals, most particularly from the one of Antonio Carreño, a Venezuelan etiquette expert who wrote “the” social etiquette manual in the 1930s and which has since then been the manual de rigueur in the Spanish language. The tone of Carreño’s manual is professorial and stern, and of course oldfashioned, with some regulations and claims that are outright ridiculous and entertaining (such as “a lady shall never sit on the windowsill of her apartment, because people may think she is a lost woman,” or “husband and wife must turn off the lights of their bedchamber before undressing,”). Julio Torri, a Mexican writer from the beginning of the century who no one reads anymore today (but me, I guess) once wrote that melancholy is the complement of irony. Without necessarily intending it to be so, I simply wrote a book that complained about the cynicism in the art world while at the same time trying not to take it too seriously, and only in retrospect I realize that the tone of the book is a mixture of the conflicted sentiments that Torri addresses. It is nothing other than my own (and I would say our collective) mixed feelings about the art world and its social rules: they tend to be absurd and conservative and careerist, and yet we agree to conform by them. GK: It is apparent that the book has been modeled after traditional etiquette manuals, and that’s what makes it a great

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